“If you are at a meeting and you don’t know why you are there, why ARE you there?” I have heard Jerry Nagel say this often enough when he teaches the Chaordic Stepping Stones at a training. The same goes for a planning process. “If you don’t know why you are doing something, why ARE you doing it?”
Many planning processes jump right into logistics (the 8th Stepping Stone, by the way) – budget, where the meeting will be, what the agenda is, important people who need to there. Then, when the planning team tries to decide what should happen during the meeting or planning process, people are unclear and sometimes confused or there are too many ideas floating around as meeting agenda is fitted to logistics rather than fitting logistics to the purpose of the work.
Purpose is the invisible leader. It keeps a community engagement process, planning process or meeting agenda on track. Purpose arises out of Need. Taking the time to reach clarity on need and purpose is, what I often tell my clients, a front end loaded process. It takes time. It can get messy – anyone resonate with, “Let’s just make a decision!” And it can change the quality of the whole process. It is part of what we refer to as slowing down to go fast.
Need is an understanding of the current situation – the reason you have decided that something should be done, planned, convened. When the Need is clearly understood, the articulation of Purpose is often easy. Getting to the root Need can take some exploration and conversation because sometimes the Need that appears most obvious is fuelled by less obvious underlying patterns, behaviours or structures.
Jerry often shares a story about a school district he worked with. School funding comes from area rates and the community had refused, several years in a row, to increase the area rate to address some maintenance issues in the school – the roof needed fixing, the seats were broken and there were other maintenance issues. As he asked the planning team about need they repeated these things several times until someone finally had an insight. The relationship between the school and the community was broken. This was the deeper need to be addressed. Recognizing this changed the whole approach to the planning process.
A few years ago, I worked with a group in Nova Scotia focused on breakfast programs in schools. There were some changes in the environment impacting the organization that delivered these programs and prompting the exploration of a new means to deliver breakfast programs. The most obvious need was to ensure and organizational structure for ongoing breakfast program delivery. The deeper need was a recognition that children who had breakfast were better learners. The planning team recognized the need to nourish the children so they could learn better and the idea of nourishment was expansive, offering the possibilities of broader interpretations (but still very focused) into the future which led to the development and name of a new organization – Nourish Nova Scotia.
Understanding the need led to this purpose: To cultivate generations of healthy eaters. And, to this vision: All Nova Scotia children and youth are well nourished to live, learn and play. With a bit of extra clarification: We aim to support the nutritional well-being of children and youth and desire to build their food knowledge and skills so they can feed themselves well into a healthier future.
Need and Purpose conversations often take a group into a groan zone which is one of the reasons people want to cut it short to get to the “important” tasks of planning. When this happens, it is common that the groan zone just gets transferred to some other part of the process, slowing it down somewhere else. Holding people in the space of a groan zone is a leadership skill.
Also, in any given project there may be multiple layers of need and purpose identified. For a project I’m working on with the United Way in Halifax right now, we are planning a community engagement event in September. That event has a need and purpose identified. There is a desire (even a need) to recruit a planning team representative of the community to ensure success. The need for the planning team has been identified as well as the purpose. And there is a meeting planned to invite potential planning team members to step up and the need and purpose of that launch meeting has also been identified. The need and purpose of the planning launch meeting and the planning team are aligned with the need and purpose of the community gathering (I want to say, of course) and having this clarity at each step of the process keeps the whole thing on track.
Sometimes the conversation is iterative as understanding of Need and Purpose may evolve through the course of the planning process. Yet, when these two stepping stones are clear, the rest of the planning process can unfold quickly.